The sanctuaries of Medma

Exhibition in Budapest – research programme in South Italy

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Nine terracotta statuettes from South Italian Rosarno, the ancient Medma, are on display at the Museum of Fine Arts between 30 October 2018 and 11 August 2019, heralding the new seasonal exhibition series of the Collection of Classical Antiquities entitled Mouseion

Classical archaeologist Ágnes Bencze outlines the historical and cultural context of the statuettes on display: Greek culture in South Italy in the 8th to 4th centuries BC, Lokroi and its neighbouring cities, together with their interconnected religious practices, as well as the research programme focusing on the terracotta statuettes recovered from the sanctuaries of Medma.

“The land of King Italos” and the Greeks
For a considerable time in antiquity – about half a millennium –, the southwestern end of the Appennine peninsula, the “tip of the Italian boot” formed part of the world of Greek poleis. By the time the Greek settlers founded the first cities there after the mid-8th century BC, the coastal areas had already been visited by generations of sailors heading from the Aegean to Central Italy. The name “Italia” itself originates from  the area: in the earliest periods it was only this region, the southern part of today’s Calabria designated so by the Greeks, who also related that upon their arrival, the land was inhabited by the “people of King Italos”. The Greeks, who were responsible for establishing the polis culture that emerged here in this period, used the language of myth to talk about these early adventures: ancient tradition later linked the Strait of Messina with the figures of Scylla and Charybdis, and pictured the encounter of Odysseus with the one-eyed giant, the shepherd Cyclops.

View of the Strait of Messina (source)

The landscape of the “toe” is largely dominated by high, rocky mountains (the southernmost range of the Appennines), which become the most difficult to pass precisely near the Strait of Messina. To the north and the east,  the landscape is more hilly,  then becomes mountainous again. Narrow plains are only found at certain areas of the shores, and from the strait (today Reggio Calabria) to Kroton (today Crotone) the mountains yield only two natural passes between the Ionian Sea and the western coast overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. This is where the founders of Lokroi Epizephyrioi settled around 700 BC, among the first groups of the Greeks who had headed to the west.

A Mesima-folyó völgye. Francesco Cuteri felvétele
The valley of the Mesima river. Photo: Francesco Cuteri

As suggested by the name, they probably arrived from the area of Lokris in Central Greece, but even ancient historians differed on which city the settlers had hailed from. Several sources allude to the settlers forming a clever pact with the local inhabitants, perhaps even marrying into their community. Archaeological finds attest that in the 8th–7th centuries BC, indigenous people living in the hills above Lokroi purchased an increasing number of Greek goods, imitating as well as transforming their shapes and motifs in their own artefacts. Soon, however, their material culture became indistinguishable, and the traces of their language and religion can only be conjectured from a few place names that can hardly be interpreted in Greek, and some unique cults in the region.

Lokroi, Medma, Hipponion
We are fairly well informed about Lokroi and its inhabitants: ancient literature mentions the story of its foundation, its wars lost and won, and its legendary lawgiver, Zaleukos, who was said to have devised the first written law code in the entire Greek world. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, modern archaeology was able to determine the extent of the city, the outlines of its walls, and the location of its living quarters and sanctuaries. By the end of the 7th century BC, the inhabitants of Lokroi had largely controlled the peninsula between the rivers Sagra and Halex – not only the coasts, but also the mounts of the hinterland. What’s more, the two overland passes between the Ionian see and the Tyrrhenian sea also belonged to Lokroi, its inhabitants thus had direct access to the most important northwestern route without passing through the Strait of Messina and requesting permission from the neighbouring polis, Rhegion. Around 600 BC – a date chiefly determined by archaeological finds – the citizens of Lokroi established two other settlements along the Tyrrhenian coast, where the Apennine passes reach the sea: Medma in the south, and Hipponion in the north, located on top of a hill with a breathtaking view.

Medma, Hipponion and Lokroi at the tip of Calabria

From this time onwards to the second half of the 5th century BC (perhaps up until the 420s BC) Lokroi and its two twin-cities formed a close alliance, a small polis-empire in South Italy. According to the inscription of a bronze shield offered in Olympia to commemorate a victory, the three cities jointly defeated their neighbouring rival, Kroton sometime in the late 6th century. The two new cities later turned against the metropolis, as attested by Thukydides, the Athenian historian: in 422 BC, during the Peloponnesian war, Lokroi was already at war with Medma and Hipponion.

In the first half of the 5th century BC, however, the period to which the statues exhibited in Budapest are dated, Lokroi, Medma, and Hipponion were probably united in both political and cultural sense. We have little information about the legal status of their citizens, or the constitution of the two twin cities. It is likely, however, that the three communities had shared a cultural identity, worshipping their gods – the same gods – in the same manner, and performing similar rites. They were all familiar with the stylistic trends flourishing in the leading centres of Greek art, and transformed this knowledge to their own artistic purposes in largely similar ways. They were characterised by a unified artistic taste.

The temenos: sacred precinct of the Greek city
In the case of Medma, all the above can be deduced from a single source, the finds recovered from the sanctuaries of the ancient city. In a Greek polis the term temenos primarily referred to a sacred area cut off from the profane world. Greek cities had several such sacred precincts: there were shrines both in the centre and at the periphery of the town. The precincts of the gods were often located far from the living quarters, in the wilderness, near springs or at the edge of the cultivated fields. A temple edifice did not necessarily form part of the precinct, especially before the 4th century BC. Thus, besides the walls laying out its boundaries, a sacred precinct can primarly be identified by traces of the rites conducted there. Although we cannot always precisely reconstruct the rites performed by the inhabitants of the polis to contact their gods, we do know the essence of some of their rituals. One of these was the custom of offering votive gifts to the deity, that is, placing enduring presents – ranging from modest artefacts to grandiose works of art – in the sanctuary. Archaeological excavations primarily yield such finds. Based on the way the objects had been interred, and their location within the area, archaeologists can make assumptions about when and how they were buried, and what rites accompanied these burials.

It was the discovery of these find groups that led to the identification of the sanctuaries of Medma. All we know today about the ancient city is that it had at least three, independent sacred precincts situated near the living quarters.

The sanctuaries of Medma 
The site of ancient Medma was identified with today’s Rosarno around 1910 by Paolo Orsi, the father of South Italian archaeology. This had been preceded by sporadic discoveries of antiquities – mostly fragments of terracotta statuettes and pottery – in the area, which led to the emergence of local private collections, and some objects entering the international art trade. Systematic excavations were only begun by Orsi in 1912. His first, comprehensive study about the finds of the ancient settlement, by then identified as Medma, was published in 1914. Orsi’s research on Medma was only continued half a century later, in the 1960s by Salvatore Settis,  and in the 1970s by Claudio Sabbione and Maurizio Paoletti. These shorter excavations were followed by renewed archaeological fieldwork at the settlement only recently (2014, 2018). In the meanwhile, the development of the modern city had considerably altered the outline of the area, making inaccessible a number of places that could have been investigated even a hundred years ago.

Olives near Rosarno. Photo: Attila Hajdú

The topography of ancient Medma is thus far from clear, and a complete reconstruction probably impossible. The walls of the city, and thus the extent of its territory, is unknown. There are only sporadic finds that would hint at the site of its necropolis. Today’s archaeological research suggests that the sites and find groups discovered by Orsi outline three different sanctuaries (temenoi), which – contrary to Orsi’s supposition – were not situated outside the city, but among the living quarters. The most significant site of the three seems to be Calderazzo, which Orsi had identified on the basis of its extremely large “votive pit” containing offerings and cultic objects buried in antiquity. The finds suggest that the sanctuary was first visited by the people of Medma around 600 BC, not long after the foundation of the city, and some areas were still used for dedicating votive gifts even in the 4th century BC. Its most significant group of objects was probably buried around 450 BC.

The two other sanctuaries are situated in Rosarno’s Sant’Anna and Mattatoio (i.e. “slaughterhouse”) district (the names reflect the times of Orsi’s excavations). Based on the finds both were active between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. Besides the smaller statuettes of female figures, the Sant’Anna site yielded a large number of terracotta horses, while the finds from the Mattatoio district sanctuary included figures of banqueting men, or more frequently, banqueting couples.

Lacking inscriptions and other written sources we cannot say which god or gods the sanctuaries were dedicated to. The only hints are again constituted by the objects unearthed at excavations, most importantly the terracotta statuettes. The female figures and busts, and primarily the enthroned and standing females likely refer to Persephone, the mistress of the underworld in Greek mythology. Her name has been raised in connection with all three sanctuaries of Medma. Some scholars have also seen hints at Aphrodite at both the Calderazzo and the Sant’Anna sites, and there are traces of a cult of a warrior goddess, perhaps Athena Hippia, who may have cherished the idea of terracotta horses. In the case of the banqueters, one is inclined to think of Hades, the husband of Persephone and lord of the underworld, or Dionysos, who was often identified with the latter.

Calderazzo: the largest sanctuary of Medma
The most important sanctuary of Medma was identified by Paolo Orsi between 1912 and 1913 in the Calderazzo district of modern Rosarno. The only unambiguous find group of the sanctuary came from the 3.5 meter wide pit, then thought to be about 30 meters long, which was used by the ancient worshippers to ritually bury their votive gifts. Later excavations, conducted mostly in 2014 and 2018 show that this huge votive deposit was even larger, with a length exceeding 40 meters. A number of smaller votive pits have also been identified in the vicinity of the large pit, still within this sacred precinct. In 2018, archaeologists also managed to identify what is probably a small, peripteros temple in the area.

The Calderazzo sanctuary, aerial view, 2018 (Archeopros)

Among the gifts buried in the largest votive pit there were Corinthian and Athenian vases, as well as locally produced ones, bronze tools and iron weapons, terracotta temple models and statuettes representing other objects such as shields and fruit. But the most numerous and most signficant finds, both from an art historical and religious historical perspective, are the terracotta figurines.

The principal theme in the terracotta repertoire represents a female figure seated on an ornate throne with lion’s feet, clad in rich drapery, wearing a diadem or wreath and holding a variety of objects in her lap.

Enthroned female figure holding a cock. Rosarno, Museo Archeologico, inv. 1126

Another full representation is constituted by standing female figures, clad in a similarly rich attire, with diadems and other attributes.

Rosarno, Museo Archeologico, inv. 3038+10729
Standing female figure. Rosarno, Museo Archeologico, inv. 3038+10729

There are busts, as well, showing only the head and the breast: it was these that gave the local craftsmen the most possibility to show off their talents as sculptors.

Female bust. Rosarno, Museo Archeologico, inv. 10733

A smaller number of male figures have also been recovered from the Calderazzo sanctuary.

The identification of the represented figures cannot always be established beyond doubt. One is tempted to regard the enthroned figure as a goddess, but we would need further attributes to establish her identity.

Female figure holding a dove. Rosarno, Museo Archeologico, inv. 40407

The dove could be taken as a reference to Aphrodite, but similar figures may also hold something else: a cock, a patera, a chest or a winged figure. In the case of the standing figures, the problem is even more complex: these statues often seem to represent mortal women bringing gifts and offering sacrifice, rather than the goddess herself. In other cases, the terracottas clearly depict mythological characters (Athena, Hermes) or human figures.

In order to understand the terracottas recovered from Calderazzo and reveal the cult performed in its sanctuary, it is worth comparing the pieces with the terracottas of the same function that have been found in contemporary Lokroi and Hipponion.

One sanctuary, three cities
In the Greek world of the 7th–5th centuries BC, the production of votive terracottas tended to be a local genre. Archaeological finds rarely point to terracottas being imported to sanctuaries from distant areas. Even the colour and quality of the clay may serve as an indication that the figurines offered to the deities were literally born from the soil of the polis. The style and modelling of the statues are often also typical of the local community. With this in mind, it is especially interesting to examine the finds from Lokroi and its twin cities. The majority of the terracottas recovered from the sanctuaries of Medma are instantly recognisable from the reddish, grainy clay they were made of. A different, smoother clay, pink on the outside and grey on the inside is characteristic of the terracottas from Hipponion. Among the earlier, 6th-century BC terracottas from the sanctuaries of Medma we often find pieces produced from clay characteristic of Lokroi.

This observation suggests that the sanctuaries of Medma were visited by people from all three city-states, who presented statuettes produced in their own workshops as offerings. Find groups from Lokroi and Hipponion show that the people of Medma also did the same. Thus, in the first half of the 5th century BC, the sanctuaries of the three cities were connected, the members of the three communities joined in each other’s cults, and it was the sanctuaries themselves that provided the scene for this contact.

The interconnection of the three cities is also suggested by the modelling of the objects. The coroplasts of Medma, just like their colleagues in Lokroi and Hipponion, were in direct contact with the leading centres of Greek art. Details of the statuettes (hairstyle, clothing, accessories) all show that they were aware of the innovations of sculptors active in Attica, the Peloponnese, and the Cycladic islands. They did not merely copy these elements, but – approaching them with creative freedom and fantasy – transformed them to reflect their own taste. The terracottas that come from the sanctuaries of Lokroi, Medma, and Hipponion in the first half of the 5th century BC are especially interesting because they exhibit a kinship of ideas and a unified style in reshaping the current trends in Greek art, without becoming uniform at the same time.

Persephone at Lokroi and the goddess of the sanctuaries at Medma
The unique characteristics of the terracottas that were offered as votives in the sanctuaries of the Locrina sphere correspond to the objects’ unique function that we now know so little of, being left with the objects themselves for a reconstruction. They correspond to the cults and beliefs that characterised the religious life of the three cities and that came to life in their sanctuaries during festivals. Our richest source is provided by the Lokroi sanctuaries, notably that of Persephone on the Mannella hillside, which was famous already in antiquity. The most frequent offering gifts presented at this site are constituted by a special genre of terracottas: plaques decorated with reliefs (pinakes) that were unearthed by the thousands during excavations in the 20th century. Some of the reliefs on the Lokroi pinakes represent scenes from the myth of Persephone: the moment the maiden goddess is snatched from the company of her friends and abducted by Hades, the lord of the underworld, then the figure of Persephone already as the queen of the underworld, seated on an ornate throne either alone or with her husband, accepting people’s offerings.

Another series, however, seems to represent mortal girls in both everyday and festive situations, perhaps conducting rites in preparation for a wedding.

The systematic compilation of the repertoire of the Lokroi pinakes, characterised by an infinite richness of representations, has finished only recently, after decades of work, which also saw a number of attempts at interpreting the essence of the cult of Persephone in Lokroi. The question is far from being solved, especially because the goddess was seen as the guardian and personification of two key moments in human life: the fulfillment of womanhood on the one hand, and the departure from this world to another existence on the other. The citizens of Lokroi, mostly the women and girls who performed rituals in Persephone’s honour on the Mannella hill, may have sought her answers in both key situations.

Today our knowledge about the sanctuaries and cults of Medma and Hipponion is still very limited. The most important witnesses of the rites, the votive terracotta statuettes, however, allow for a cautious hypothesis, precisely because of what has been said above about the interconnection of the three repertoires. Lokroi pinakes have also come to light at the sanctuaries of the two other cities, albeit in smaller numbers. In the first half of the 5th century BC, the statuettes themselves resemble the female figures represented on the Lokroi plaques in every detail: the clothing, the hairstyle, and the elaboration of the throne, all correspond to how the enthroned Persephone is represented on the pinakes, and the objects they hold in their laps – the cock, the dove, the patera, the chest, and so forth – are also recurrent motifs of the plaques, appearing in identical representations. What’s more, the stylistic features that characterise the statuettes of all three cities is also shared by the pinakes. Is this formal unity a sign of shared beliefs and customs, and of rituals performed jointly by the citizens of the three communities? Or do the local differences that are discernible among the repertoires of the votive gifts of the Lokroi group have greater significance? The in-depth research on the finds from the sanctuaries of Medma and Hipponion will hopefully provide more precise answers in the future.

International collaboration for the research of votive terracottas from Medma
The statues and fragments that travelled from Rosarno to Budapest in the fall of 2018 were found during the 1912–1913 excavations. Together with hundreds of similar objects they had been kept in storage up until the past few years and are now exhibited for the first time, following careful restoration at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.

The exhibition is tied to a research programme focusing on the votive terracotta sculpture of Medma and its twin cities, which was launched in 2017, and is supported by the Museum of Fine Arts, the Pázmány Péter Catholic University, and the École Française de Rome. The programme also receives support from the Soprintendenza ABAP, Calabria and the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Reggio Calabria. The exhibition could not have been realised without the kind assistance of archaeological field supervisor Fabrizio Sudano. The objects on display have been restored by Zita Rostás and Katalin Csontos from the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Ágnes Bencze

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